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Caucasus Report: May 30, 2005

30 May 2005, Volume 8, Number 18

SUPPORT EXPRESSED FOR ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER'S ANTICIPATED PRESIDENTIAL BID. The leaders of five small left-wing parties loyal to President Robert Kocharian announced at a press conference two weeks ago their alignment in a new political grouping, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 23 May. They also expressed their support for an anticipated bid by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian to become Armenia's next head of state, becoming the first Armenian political groups to publicly endorse Sarkisian's imputed presidential ambitions.

"In the event of expanding his powers, the defense minister will realize our nation's dreams and aspirations," said Tigran Urikhanian of the staunchly pro-Kocharian Progressive Party. "I don't know whether or not he will run in the next elections.... But if he runs we will definitely support him."

"I absolutely agree with that," said Yurii Manukian, the leader of the United Communist Party, another member of the alliance. Both Urikhanian and Manukian are known for their outspoken criticism of Kocharian's and Sarkisian's political foes, which they usually voice during an upsurge in opposition activity in the country. Opposition leaders have dismissed the two flamboyant politicians as government "agents."

Sarkisian has long been regarded as Armenia's second-most-powerful leader and is widely believed to be Kocharian's preferred successor. Sarkisian's brother Aleksandr said in a recent newspaper interview that Serzh Sarkisian is "the best candidate to succeed Robert Kocharian." However, Sarkisian himself has so far refused to comment on his possible participation in the next presidential election due in 2008. "There is still more than three years left [before the completion of Kocharian's second term in office]," he told reporters last month. "Why are we hurrying?"

The three pro-Kocharian parties aligned in the coalition government also say that it is still too early for them to formulate a position on who should succeed Kocharian when his second presidential term expires in 2008. (Nane Atshemian)

TURKEY 'SPURNED CHANCE TO IMPROVE TIES WITH ARMENIA.' A senior Armenian official has accused Turkey of spurning a rare opportunity to improve strained relations between the two neighbors that arose from a recent exchange of letters between the Armenian and Turkish leaders. Speaking on Armenian public television late on 19 May, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian claimed that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan only exacerbated Turkish-Armenian tensions with his harsh attacks on Yerevan and his refusal to meet with President Robert Kocharian.

The two leaders were expected to meet on the sidelines of the Council of Europe summit in Warsaw to discuss their exchange of messages. Erdogan wrote to Kocharian last month suggesting that the two countries set up a commission of historians who would look into the 1915-18 mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire and determine whether they constituted genocide.

Kocharian effectively rejected the idea, calling instead for the creation of a Turkish-Armenian intergovernmental commission that would discuss all issues of mutual concern, including the genocide controversy (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 6 May 2005). Ankara's reaction to Kocharian's written response was rather positive, with Turkish officials reportedly saying that the proposals can be combined. But Erdogan reportedly refused to meet Kocharian in Warsaw due to the latter's renewed calls on 16 May for international recognition of the Armenian genocide. Erdogan angrily denounced Armenia and European countries that recognized the genocide in his speech at the forum on 17 May.

"Turkey cannot accept such baseless allegations," he told a news conference later on 17 May. "No one can achieve anything by keeping such baseless allegations on top of agenda." Erdogan also indicated that a pro-Azerbaijani solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict remains a key precondition for the establishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of the border between Turkey and Armenia.

Oskanian on 19 May denounced Erdogan's attacks as "inappropriate" and said the Turks "naively" hoped that Kocharian would himself request a meeting. He said the Turks needed the meeting more than the Armenians because they intended to "create an illusion of progress" in Turkish-Armenian relations in the eyes of the European Union leaders. "The Turks made wrong calculations," he said. "And as a result of those wrong calculations, the more or less favorable atmosphere created by the exchange of letters was spoiled. And I can only conclude that we took a step backward in Turkish-Armenian relations because of the Turks." (Emil Danielyan)

OPPOSITIONIST HIGHLIGHTS GEORGIAN LEADERSHIP'S UNKEPT PROMISES. On 23 May Georgia's Conservative Party, the Union for Georgia's Unity, and the Union of National Forces merged to form a new party, named the Conservative Party of Georgia, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. Delegates elected Koba Davitashvili, a former member of President Mikheil Saakashvili's National Movement, to head the new combined party. Davitashvili, leader of the pre-merger Conservative Party, received 380 votes compared with 365 for Union of National Forces head Zviad Dzidziguri.

Addressing the congress, Dzidziguri called on other opposition parties to align in a united front to participate in the next parliamentary elections. He proposed that the opposition should field one candidate in each constituency, and that the number of candidates each political party would nominate would be determined by the number of votes it received in the last parliamentary ballot.

Davitashvili, who for years was a close political ally of President Saakashvili but broke with him early last year to protest what he branded as undemocratic amendments to the Georgian Constitution, went on to list the National Movement's unkept election promises. He mentioned specifically its failure to initiate the election, rather than the appointment, of regional administrators and the mayors of the cities of Tbilisi and Poti; failure to compensate the population for the devaluation of Soviet-era savings accounts, despite the confiscation from corrupt former officials of their illegally accumulated wealth; failure to embark on meaningful economic reform and reform the pension system; the use of the proceeds from state-sponsored smuggling to strengthen the armed forces; and the failure to implement democratization, as exemplified by the recent presidential decree under which only Saakashvili loyalists are named to election commissions.

On 29 May, the weekly "Kviris palitra" published the findings of a poll of 582 Georgians, of whom 35 percent named Davitashvili as Georgia's most constructive and fair opposition politician. Levan Berdzenishvili of the Republican Party ranked second and David Gamkrelidze of the parliamentary Rightist Opposition third, according to Caucasus Press on 30 May. (Liz Fuller)

POLITKOVSKAYA ON KOZAK. In a 24 May interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya gave a positive assessment of Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak's track record since his appointment to that position last fall (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 September 2004). Politkovskaya said she thinks Kozak understands the North Caucasus and its problems, unlike previous senior officials sent there from Moscow who, Politkovskaya suggested, were "hostages to false information." By contrast, Kozak "did not rely on false information, he tries to ascertain how things really are."

She said that Kozak has succeeded in fulfilling his primary task of preventing any "mass disorders," even though he may not always have acted as brilliantly as he did last week, when he traveled to Maikop to reconcile Republic of Adygeya President Khazret Sovmen with the parliament he sought to dissolve (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 May 2005, and "Quotations of the Week" below), and before that in Cherkessk last fall, where he defused the political crisis triggered by the involvement of Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyev's son-in-law Ali Kaitov in the killing of seven local businessmen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 and 25 October and 9, 10 and 12 November 2004 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 18 November 2004). (Liz Fuller)

QUOTATIONS OF THE WEEK. "It is much easier to make a revolution than it is to transform a failed state into a well-performing democracy." -- Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, writing in the "Financial Times" on 26 May.

"There's not time to get involved in an internecine war." -- Russian presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak, meeting on 24 May in Maikop with Republic of Adygeya President Khazret Sovmen and members of the republican parliament Sovmen wanted to dissolve (quoted by